Everything Illuminated: Taggants as Ubiquitous AR Markers – Part 2


In my previous post on this subject, I described a future in which “taggants” (trackable micro- or nano-sized particles) are everywhere–in the paint on a building, the fabric of our clothes, impregnated in the metal and plastic of our consumer goods and vehicles … even in clouds of dust.  A ubiquitous network of machine-recognizable points in three-dimensional space.  The result would be a leap forward in the ability of AR devices to perceive moving physical objects and seamlessly overlay them with dynamic digital data in real time.  Call it “Avatar Everywhere.”

This technology is closer than you think.  Nanotaggants are already being marketed in conjunction with electro-optical scanners to combat counterfeiting of bank notes and lottery tickets.  The military has its suppliers working on taggants that can be “crop-dusted” over enemy troops to track their movements.  If and when this technology becomes commercially widespread (as happened in a highly analogous way with the military’s GPS tracking technology), what legal issues might arise?

(Disclaimer time: these are my personal predictions about a technology that doesn’t (quite) exist yet.  It is not meant to apply to, or cast aspersions on, any of the companies, products, or services currently on the market.)

Regulation.  If a network of commercial-grade, AR-capable nanotaggants does emerge, let’s hope there’s only one such network.  That is, that the taggants operate on a frequency and in a manner that all AR-capable hardware can use.   Just as there’s only one internet, one set of GPS satellites, one power grid, and one sewer system (just to name a few public utilities), so too should there only be one network of taggants.

Otherwise, the networks becomes fragmented, and the benefits inherent in a universal system are lost. What good would it be if your AR eyewear could only recognize the objects coated with taggants made by a particular manufacturer?  It would be like trying to walk down the street while only able to see things that are blue.  Even smartphones that use various proprietary networks to make phone calls all have chips that operate on the same GPS system, and they all connect to the same internet.  And the various phone companies’ signals all operate within a defined range of frequencies demarcated by the federal government. If it were not so, competitors would be broadcasting signals that interfered with all sorts of other communication.  Without oversight, we could see a dozen or more companies trying to spray, paint, and infuse their own proprietary taggants into anything and everything–and that could get out of hand quickly.  I don’t necessarily have warm, fuzzy feelings about governmental regulation in the abstract, but this is an area where some degree of centralized oversight would be well-advised.

Health and Environment.
The benefit of oversight becomes all the more clear when you think about the potential, unintended side effects of all this micro-machinery being spread everywhere.  But that cat is already out of the bag.  AR-capable nanotaggants may accelerate the problem, but there are already enough nanodevices in use for people to be talking about these issues.

This is actually an area where, for once, the government is ahead of the game.  In 2000, it created the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which “serves as the central point of communication, cooperation, and collaboration for all Federal agencies engaged in nanotechnology research.”  In 2008 and 2011, the NNI published a Nanotechnology Enivronmental, Health, and Safety Research Strategy, which is intended to provide a research framework in the core areas of human exposure, the environment, human health, and measurement tools, and risk assessment and risk management, along with research needs in predictive modeling.

Nevertheless, experts already see a lot of nanotech litigation coming. “Product liability and toxic exposure attorneys,” says Ronald Wernette, author of the Nanotort Law Blog, “suggest that the first civil tort suits will be filed within the next five years. They anticipate a variety of claims, including consumer claims based on the fear of future physical harm. At issue could be whether manufacturers of consumer products appropriately tested nanomaterials, whether the government approved the product, and whether the potential harms were adequately disclosed. … Employees of nanomaterial manufacturers are likely to bring exposure claims, and … theories applied to nanotechnology claims will include defective design, defective manufacturing, and failure to warn claims.”

This could all actually be positive news for companies thinking about constructing a nanotaggant network; maybe by the time the taggants are ready for prime time, either the NNI or the courts will have established some helpful guidelines for avoiding liability.

Privacy. I’ve already raised some of the privacy questions that ubiquitous AR will inspire, such as whaCredit: chelmsfordblue on Flickrt happens to our reasonable expectations of privacy when we’re all wearing AR eyewear capable of recording and live-blogging everything we see.  (And sure enough: only a few months later, Eyez, the first commercially available eyewear intended for just that purpose, was announced.)

Technology like that will certainly further complicate the debate over what should be public and private.  But with trackable nanotaggants, it could become possible for the first time to literally destroy the possibility of privacy altogether–at least when it comes to concealing your physical location.  In this future, when anything and everything–even our clothes–are tagged, everything will be trackable.

But I’m not even talking about the taggants we’ll know are there. Consider: the nanotaggants that the military is currently developing are intended to be sprayed onto enemy combatants so they can be tracked in situations where direct surveillance is impossible, such as urban combat. Because these devices exist on a micro or nano scale, they’re invisible to the human eye.  Ideally, the soldier won’t even know he’s been tagged, let alone be able to find or remove all of the devices.  There would be nothing to stop governments, law enforcement, criminals, or anyone else from using similar technology to track anyone.

Even if you knew you were tagged, could you remove them all?  A human skin pore is 200~250 nanometers wide, which easily allows nano-scale products to be absorbed into the skin (at least according to this “nano-cosmetics” website).  What if you inhaled or ingested them (as posited by those who fear the environmental consequences of the technology)?  Like Lady Macbeth, you’d wash and wash, but never get the damned nano-spot out.

The inability to hide your physical location would have consequences for personal safety that go beyond one’s sense of privacy.  Would the Witness Protection Program become unfeasible if those hunting you could locate your taggants?  What about firearms with taggant-detecting scopes?  Talk about walking around with a target on your back.

These are just a few of the ideas that this concept of nano-markers brings to my mind. But I’ve digressed enough for one post.  For more information on these subjects, follow the links above.  For an in-depth discussion of where nanotechnology as a whole could take us someday, visit the online home of Eric Drexler, who has been thinking and writing about these subjects since at least the mid-1980’s.

What do you think? Am I on to something here, or out to lunch?

I recently had a chance to put that question to Brian Mullins, CEO of Daqri-one of the newest and most interesting start-ups in the AR industry.  He didn’t commit to my speculative idea of using nanotaggants as markers.  But he did agree that  “ubiquitous marking” is where the industry is headed.

Today’s AR apps rely on thick black lines and QR codes because of the limitations of existing mechanical vision hardware.  But Brian sees multiple approaches to marking blending together in the near future.  “Mixing the signals–physical telemetry, GPS telemetry, and vision-based AR telemetry–is where it’s going to go,” he told me.  “Just because they don’t look like the boxy markers that we’re all familiar with doesn’t mean that we’re not using markers.”  And with ubiquitous marking comes the promise of a genuinely engaging, organic interaction between the physical and digital worlds without having to wait for mechanical vision technology to catch up with the human eye.

Brian’s comments are exciting because he’s one of the businesspeople out there working on a daily basis to make AR’s future a reality.  His company, Daqri, hopes to usher AR into the mainstream by launching a platform for user-generated AR content–what Brian aptly calls “the YouTube of AR.”  Daqri is in a private beta right now, but that will change with the announcements they’ll be making this Tuesday, June 14.  That’s also when I will post on this blog my full interview with Brian about Daqri and his thoughts about our augmented future.  Come back then and check it out!